Let's have dinner—but don't bring your wife, please

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Recently, I had dinner plans with a business contact and friend, a gentleman who was the founder of a billion-dollar retailer and who now runs a firm that makes a variety of early and mid-stage private investments that leverage his expertise. The dinner was to catch up on projects that we were both working on and to generally enhance our business relationship.

The evening of the dinner, I was on the phone with another client of mine — also an older, successful man — who asked what I was doing that evening. When I told him about my dinner plans, he asked if my business contact's wife would be attending. I was extremely confused. "No," I responded. "It would be really weird for him to bring his wife to a business dinner, unless it was specifically a business dinner with spouses." His response — paraphrased — was basically that it somehow seemed improper for a younger woman to have a dinner with an older man, even if the purpose was business.

Ironically, this client never thought the same when it was the two of us having dinner, because he had context about our business relationship. But, as soon as he wasn't involved, despite having firsthand knowledge of my business background, his immediate assumption was that my body parts made the business meeting somehow unfit.

I was perturbed by this and mentioned it to my husband that afternoon. Now, mind you, I met my husband at work (in the company gym 16 years ago) and worked with him for 10 years including running a broker-dealer together, so he is very familiar with my business background and my contacts. When I mentioned how this client exchange annoyed me, my husband shocked me. He admitted that he thought it was "unusual" and that he was concerned about what other people would think seeing an older man with a younger woman out to dinner.

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I was floored. Even my own husband had the bias. I pushed him and told him that if it were him having dinner with this man, that it would be no big deal and it shouldn't matter that I am female. He left me with this reality: "It shouldn't matter, but it does."

So, here comes the conundrum that is at the center of "glass ceiling" issues: If it's viewed as unsavory in any way for a woman to network with a man, how does the woman ever advance her career? If you look at the lack of women on public company boards, in CEO positions, in major finance positions, and in prominent Silicon Valley jobs, I will contend that this view is a big piece of what's holding many very capable women back.

I am privileged to have had a lot of success in my career, in male-dominated fields like finance and media. From becoming one of the youngest officers of a major investment banking firm at age 25 to having been a director of a publicly-traded company and anchoring a major market radio show to publishing a New York Times bestseller, my accomplishments stand on their own merits. So, if a woman with my accomplishments receives this type of treatment, what hope does a woman just starting out in her career have? The outlook is bleak and the issue needs to be addressed, because most major opportunities come from networking and relationships.

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People seek out mentorship, business dealings and contacts with other successful people who can help them (and hopefully, that they can help in return). It's a necessary part of career growth and advancement and it should be viewed as a positive. And when men hold the greater majority of all professional positions of power, it is impossible for a woman to advance her career without the support of men. It's critical for women to be able to access and interact with successful men in order to improve their professional standing. In fact, it's sort of a vicious cycle, because unless women become more powerful and successful, we will continue to be relegated to being viewed as objects first, but if we are kept from the mentorship of the men who currently hold those positions, we will never be able to get there to begin with.

We are in big trouble as a nation if we cannot find a way to have women and men work side-by-side, fulfill mentor and mentee roles and — gasp! — have dinner together for business purposes.

Here's my call to action:

  • Men, if you are in a position of power or authority, please respectfully continue to mentor and work with talented individuals and those with promise, regardless if they are men or women.
  • Women, continue to network with individuals who are further along in their careers, irrespective of gender, as that is the only way you will learn and grow.
  • Everyone, stop judging women in business and treating them differently than men. Otherwise, we may never see a substantial number of talented women in the corporate leadership positions that they deserve.

I went to dinner, as planned. It was great and I'm unaware if anyone looked at us sideways — but if they did, it should be their problem, not mine. Plus, I came away with some potential business opportunities to follow-up on. That's the way it should work.

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— By Carol Roth

Carol Roth is a CNBC contributor, a "recovering" investment banker and author of "The Entrepreneur Equation." Follow her on Twitter@CarolJSRoth.